Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Certifiably Yours

One never knows, of course, exactly how one is perceived, but I'd have to guess that anyone who reads this blog would probably get the idea that I'm a much more uptight person than I really am. I do have a tendency to go on a bit about the greengrocer's plural and other all-too-common contemporary abuses of the beloved mother tongue. And I really am uptight about usage. Some years ago, the entire accounting staff where I was then working was talking about me as because I had reviewed a tax return prepared by one of them and given it back to him with, among other comments, a note that one of his attachments "[was] not standard English." If I was walking down a corridor of cubicles, I would occasionally hear "standard English" murmured in my wake.

But really, in person, I'm very rarely uptight. It's possible that this is because one or more of my friends runs ahead of me and destroys most instances of scare quotes, but I think it's more likely that the occurrence of abysmal writing is a lot lower on the street than it is on the Internet.

Regardless, there are at least two other things that make me lose my cool. One is driving in traffic. Fortunately, if I'm stuck in traffic, I'm almost always alone, so I can let loose with all manner of cutting remark or obscene invective, and no one's the wiser. If b&c and I are going somewhere together, I always make him drive. He's a terrible driver, but it's a lot easier to deal with the near-constant fear of imminent death than it is to be behind the wheel in traffic. Occasionally I'll get stuck in traffic when one of the kids is in the car, and then they get very nervous. They're only used to me as a very laid back person: neither of them has yet discovered scare quotes or the greengrocer's plural.

The other thing that pisses me off is getting to a movie so late that I either have to walk in after it's started or I have to sit somewhere that gives me a sore neck. I mention this for reasons that will become obvious.

So I have this friend Lance, and he's crazy. Not crazy like he'd call you up out of nowhere and invite you along on a trip to Peru (Which, really, would be pretty cool, though it's hard to imagine a time when I'd be able to go to Peru on a moment's notice. Wouldn't I need a visa, anyway? And what about altitude sickness? I hate nosebleeds.), but crazy like on this past Thursday night, he called me to tell me that he had good reason to believe that the thunder currently going on was a warning that we were all facing an imminent attack, probably in the form of mass poisoning of the water supply. Not by the terrorists, of course, but by the government. He was doubly worried because he thought it was all his fault. He'd posted something critical of the current administration on the craigslist rants and raves section (Which I don't, by the way, read. I just went to check it out, and, well, don't. Just don't. Trust me. Please.) and he was pretty sure that because of his post there the government would be retaliating against all of us here. And also against the gay soldiers in Iraq.

This conversation (and I use the term loosely, since it was almost entirely him talking and me listening) went on for just over an hour, most of which I spent wondering what the appropriate response might be. Lance and I haven't been friends for all that long, and while he's always been a little bit out there, it's mostly been in an entertaining rather than scary way. To be honest, we're friends in large part because I'd really like to jump his bones (they're very fine bones), though I don't think there's any chance that I'll ever get the opportunity.

Anyway, after an hour, I tried to explain, gently, that I didn't believe we were facing an attack and that while I didn't necessarily think that posting on rants and raves was a productive use of time, I also didn't think that doing so presented a danger to any gay soldiers who might be serving in Iraq. And then I suggested that he'd likely been spending too much time alone lately and asked him to come out Saturday to dinner and a movie with some friends.

Lance has an unusual history. I'm going to try to explain this without the use of charts, but that might be difficult, so just do your best to keep up. At some point in the past, Lance was partnered to Guy1. After that, Lance was partnered to both Guy1 and Guy2. That situation lasted for ten years or so, but then Lance decided to move out. He remained partnered to Guy2, but not to Guy1. Guy1 and Guy2 continue to live together, while Lance lives somewhere else. Mostly. About six months ago, though, Guy1 had a stroke, and Lance (who had quit his job with the government when Congress decided to strip the habeas corpus rights of Guantanamo detainees) decided to move back in with Guy1 and Guy2 so that he could take care of Guy1's rehabilitation. Guy1 and Guy2 live out in the exurbs, in a fairly secluded spot, so Lance hasn't had much contact with the outside world. Apparently, it isn't agreeing with him.

Of course, there are other possible explanations for his behavior. B&c thinks that Lance is mentally ill and off his meds. Either way, when he thought the government was going to drug us all in our sleep, I was the one he called, so I felt some sort of moral responsibility. I told him he needed to come out with us on Saturday, and I told him that I was worried about him. When somebody's that far gone, I don't think there's any point in pretending that you agree with him or that you think he's okay.

Anyway, I'd already arranged with b&c and my friend George to get dinner at a seafood place near work and then see Death at a Funeral on Saturday evening, so I e-mailed Lance and told him what the plans were and suggested that if he was going to be up in the exurbs (Guys 1&2 live about five miles north of us) that he might want to ride down with b&c and meet us in Bethesda. I hadn't heard from him by Saturday late morning (I was at the office, of course.), so I called him and left a message. I didn't hear back from him, but I know that he thinks the government is monitoring all his calls, so I didn't know what to think.

Just before 6, b&c called to say that he'd arrived and had parked in the public lot next to my office building, and we walked over to meet George. On the way, I stopped at Bethesda Row to pick up tickets and sent b&c on ahead. Bethesda Row is a very popular theatre on Saturday nights, and even though Death at a Funeral had been out for some weeks, I knew that all of the newer shows would sell out, so a lot of people would end up seeing it as a second or third choice. And, as it happens, when I got to the ticket machine, right at 6:00, the 7:30 show was already half sold.

So now I'm feeling both clever and virtuous: the movie's 90 minutes off, I have the tickets, and the restaurant we're eating at is very quick with service. I cross the street, and find b&c and George waiting for me, and we walk half a block to the restaurant, where we find a table outdoors. It's a beautiful evening.

George is a Ph.D. who administers research grants for CDC. He's a very smart guy: when I'm being Nick, he's the only one of my friends who's up to being Nora, whom, oddly enough, he resembles. He had very recently been on a trip to Vietnam and China to oversee some research and to hook up with as many young Chinese guys as he could find, respectively. He'd found a lot. He was exclaiming (again) about how much he likes China and how much better he does with the young men over there than with the young men over here. "They just like me so much over there. I don't know why?" I stared at him until he said "What?" and then said, "Oh, I don't know. You think maybe the rich American thing has something to do with it?" But he didn't think that was it. I guess there are some things you just don't learn in a Ph.D. program.

Anyway, it's taking a while for the waitress to get to us, but no big deal, because we've still got 75 minutes, and Cameron's gets the food out very quickly. Then we order, and it's taking longer than usual, but no big deal, because we've still got an hour. And then the food comes, and it's very good, but b&c pokes his fork into his flounder, and he's not happy. The consistency makes him think that it's undercooked. It's not undercooked: it's just flounder; there are reasons why no one orders fried flounder. But he sends it back, and I begin to get nervous.

And then I look up, and there's this really good looking guy walking down the street and smiling at me. It's Lance. He's wearing a woolen tunic that, apparently, he bought in Guatemala fifteen years ago, and he looks great, except for that somewhat manic gleam in his eye, but maybe it's just a weird reflection from the setting sun.

Fortunately, he doesn't want dinner, he just wants to sit and talk, which is maybe not so fortunate. George, who apparently hasn't had sex since he got back from China because all three of his boyfriends are out of town, is looking at Lance and salivating, when Lance says, "So I had this idea." And I'm thinking, "Oh, God, please no. This is not going to end up with me seeing Peru. This is going to end up badly."

I've probably mentioned before that I like to sing. We have a new choir director at church, and I still haven't had the chance to sing for her as a soloist, but I'm due to do that this coming Thursday evening. I haven't really done anything to prepare, so I'm just going to sing a couple of a cappella things that I like. One of them will be a version of "Salve Regina," and the other will be a version of "John Henry," which I love but I've never sung in public before. I mention this for reasons that will soon become obvious.

So I'm trying to avert my eyes and focus on my fried calimari and simultaneously pray that b&c's replacement food arrives quickly, when Lance starts to explain his idea by saying, "I don't know if you've heard it, but there's this old country song called 'John Henry," and I immediately think, "Oh, please God, no, don't go ruining my pro-John Henry attitude with your craziness," but all I say is, "Yes. John Henry was a steel driving man. He died with his hammer in his hand," hoping that a quick synopsis will forestall him from going into depth.

To no avail. Alas. Lance starts talking about how John Henry was faced with being supplanted by a machine and how he wants to try to turn that around. We're all looking at him, politely puzzled (though I'm the only one who's terrified because George and b&c really have no idea -- yet -- that he's batshit insane) so he starts to say that he knows there have been a lot of injuries in Iraq and how he's sure that some of the injured soldiers in Iraq are gay (interior monologue: "No! Not the gay soldiers in Iraq again. Please. I'm begging you!") and he thinks that some of these soldiers should run a race, like John Henry against the steam drill, but instead of using machines, they'd use human bodies.

By now we've dropped the polite puzzlement, and we're just totally confused. So Lance begins to explain that he wants other guys to be the legs of these amputees. And George says, "You mean you want to strap them on the other guys' backs?" and Lance says, "No, I want them inside the other mens' legs," and I say, "Um, Lance, I don't think you can put an amputee inside another guy's legs," and Lance says, "Well, why not? You can get your fist inside a man's ass, so you could certainly get an amputee's stumps in there."

At this point, I'm looking around, wondering if the other tables, who are very close, can hear us, and b&c is just staring at Lance. George looks at me, smiles, and says, "I'm thinking it might not fly with the VA."

Fortunately, the waitress reappears with b&c's replacement fish, and Lance says that he'd just like some water. Then he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, and George says, "So when you said 'insane,' you meant...." "Yeah, I meant insane."

So a little more time goes by. I finish my meal, b&c works on his, Lance returns from the men's room, and George continues to salivate at him. The topic of conversation, fortunately, has shifted, but it's getting later. It's after 7 now, and there hasn't been a check or anything, and I know the theater will start to fill up soon, and the conversation continues to be weird.

TED: I hope the waitress comes back soon. I don't want to be late.
B&c: Relax. We've got twenty minutes.
George: Yeah, what's the hurry?
TED: It's a Saturday night; the theater will fill up, and we won't be able to sit together in a decent spot.
B&c: Yet you always complain when I want to get to the opera early.
TED: Okay, I'm only going to explain this once. You make us leave so early for the Kennedy Center that we often arrive before they're letting people in. Furthermore, if I get to the opera five minutes before the curtain, I still have the same seat because the ticket says where I'm going to sit. If I get to the movie at the last minute, I'm in the second row, to the side, and I'm getting a sore neck. Is the difference really so difficult to understand?
Lance: Where is b&c, by the way?
TED: You mean at the opera? He's right next to me. Our seats are together.
Lance: No. I mean where is he tonight?
TED: [Intense, disbelieving stare]
George: Um...
B&c: I'm right here!
Lance: Oh. I'm sorry.
TED: Ok, now I'm curious. You met b&c at our last party. Which of those guys did you think was my partner?
Lance: Well, I have problems remembering people sometimes.
B&c: Evidently.
George: [Quietly, but not all that quietly] So, how do you know Lance?
TED: Oh, he's just a friend.
George: But not a fwip?
TED: No.
George: That's too bad, he's really hot.
TED: Indeed.
Lance: I deal more in ideas than in people.
TED: Ah, there's the waitress.
George: Great! I want another glass of wine.
TED: It's 7:15!
George: Yeah, but I want more wine. Don't worry.
TED: This is not going to end well.

So George gets his refill. I explain to Lance that I only bought three tickets because I didn't know for sure he was coming, and he says that it's no problem, he'll just get one when we get over there. The check comes and gets paid, and it's 7:25, but I'm telling myself that 7:30 is when they start the trailers, and, besides, it's only a block to the theatre. So we head over. I'm talking to Lance, and I'm asking him how he's doing, and he says, "Oh, I'm okay. Still insane, but okay." And I say, "Well, at least you're harmless," but he's not sure he agrees.

As we're crossing the street, he refines his idea. He says that instead of an amputee, maybe he could get three guys and one of the guys could ride the other two guys by putting his left foot in one guy's ass and his right foot in the other. And, you know, I just can't help myself, so I say, "I bet if you put an ad in craigslist for that, you'd get responses," and Lance just lights up and says, "That's a great idea!" And I say, "No. No, it's not a great idea, Lance. You'd get interest but it's a terrible idea. It may very well be the worst idea in the history of Western civilization." He laughs, and I feel slightly better. You have to figure that the Unabomber never laughed, right?

And then we run into these people. And -- you know what? -- if you want to live with a bunch of hippies and spend your days pretending that you're an artist and playing World of Warcraft (the website's biographies no longer mention the heavy duty WOW playing, but I presume it still goes on), then go right ahead, but don't try to support yourself by soliciting donations in downtown Bethesda where a crazy person might walk by. I've dealt with these people before, and I gave them five bucks once, so I figure I'm covered for life. Lance, however, has never met them before, and he doesn't meet much of anyone, so when someone says she's an artist and accosts him, he's fascinated. Enthralled, even.

George and b&c pass us, get to the front of the theatre and wait, and I'm seeing my last chance at a decent seat slip through my fingers. I catch up with them, and George says that he wants us to come by his place after the movie for pumpkin pie, "but only if Lance can come: he's hot, and I'm horny." I give them my look of greatest exasperation and their tickets, and I tell them to try to save us seats. Then I go back and gently tell Lance that we're going to be late for the movie. He gives the young woman from the commune some money, and I tell the older woman from the commune -- for the third time in five minutes -- that I have somewhere else to be, and I drag him to the ticket window. He tells me to go on ahead and that he'll come in unless the show is sold out. I can see that the show isn't sold out, but I go on ahead. It's past 7:30 now, and I've resigned myself to missing the previews.

I get inside, and the theater's packed. I look around for George and b&c. I don't see George, but after a couple of minutes, I spot b&c. He's in the second row, off to the right side. I go and sit next to him, and he says, "There weren't any other seats together, so George went and sat in a single seat near the back. Where's Lance?" I contort myself so that I can look at the entrance to the theater, but after five minutes, I give up. The movie's about to start.

So they tell me that Death at a Funeral was really funny. By about an hour into the movie, I had stopped fuming for long enough to laugh a few times. I'm not really a huge fan of bodily waste humor, though, so there are a number of places where I'm meant to be laughing and I'm cringing instead. Still, I'm sure it's a much better movie than I thought, just because of the circumstances.

Then the movie's over, and b&c and I leave the theater, and there's Lance, working on his soda and dark m&ms and saying how it was a fun movie to watch. George says that it was really funny and "Wow, you were really right about having to get here early."

At this point, I know better than to say anything, because I'm pissy. I don't like being pissy. I'm pissy maybe three times a year, and the instances always occur when I've been working a lot, and the way to deal with it is to remove myself from polite society until the pissiness passes. It usually takes a couple of hours. So when George asks about dessert, I say that I'm going to head back to the office. It's only 9:15, after all, and I can still review a few returns before midnight. B&c says he's going home (he'd been sick the previous night and was pretty tired), so Lance and George head off in search of dessert.

B&c and I walk the five or so blocks back to where I work and where his car is parked, and I'm not saying anything, and he's about to ask me why I'm angry, and I'm hoping he won't, when my cell phone goes off, and it's EFU calling from school, so I'm saved from having to talk to b&c at all. Talking with EFU always puts me in a good mood, too.

By the way, the next night, b&c made the mistake of saying, at dinner, "You were really pissed off about something last night," and I can only presume that what I said to him over the next five minutes will teach him that when I've decided to keep something to myself, then he should just not poke a sleeping dog. How hard a lesson is that to learn, anyway? B&c's pissy about twelve times a week, and when that happens, I just go somewhere else and read or watch TV. It's a 3,000 square foot house: how hard is it to avoid one person?

Anyway, Saturday night, I went back to the office and got a lot done. I was eliminating an underpayment of estimated tax penalty from a client's return when I saw that George was online. He was cruising for sex, of course. I was surprised since I'd assumed that he and Lance were going to hook up, but they didn't. Apparently, when Lance found out that George worked for the government, the deal was off. Lance is pretty much convinced that every government worker's main responsibility is to keep an eye on him and report back to Dick Cheney. So George's attempts came to nothing, and he still felt ridiculous for being so horny that he'd sleep with an insane man.

All of which, curiously enough, made my neck feel better.


Will said...

I love how you can write up a seemingly ordinary tale of frustration and make it compelling, amusing and somehow significant. It's like the operas of Leos Janacek where someone asks someone else what they had for dinner and the music reaches ecstatic peaks undreamed of even in Wagner.

Oh, that's right you wouldn't know about Wagner--OK, Puccini, then. Ecstatic peaks undreamed of even in Puccini. You really do it well.

The Neighbors Will Hear said...

Thanks, Will! I don't think anyone's ever called me a drama queen in a nicer way.

Tork said...

Your characters are great. This could be the opening chapter of a great novel. Chapter 2. The Race.